Seesaw battle ends in 8-6 Rangers win

By Chad Booth
STAR CORRESPONDENT

   The sun beat down on Unaka and Cloudland as they faced off in the first game of their conference tournament, but the heat wasn't the only reason they had to sweat.
   Although Unaka pulled out an 8-6 victory, the game was tight throughout and the lead seesawed between the combatants. Unaka entered the game with uncertainties following lineup changes due to injuries.
   "Our shortstop hurt his ankle so we had our catcher is at short," said Mike Ensor, Unaka's head coach. "We have a freshman behind the plate. Rusty Chambers has played hurt for about two weeks now. He's about 90 percent."
   In spite of the injuries, Unaka hit the gate running as it jumped out to a one-run lead in the top of the first.
   Ben Cole, pitcher for Unaka, drove in the third baseman, Jeremy McCann to get the Rangers started.
   Aaron Dugger, who had two stolen bases on the day, scored on a base hit by Chambers to extend the lead to two runs in the top of the third.
   Cloudland bounced back in the bottom of the third with Jonathan Gibbs scoring on a single by Josh Johnson.
   The 'Landers continued their scoring drive in the bottom of the fourth with a leadoff single by Caleb Denton. James Gardner followed with a single to right field, putting runners on first and third with no outs.
   From there, a double by Dale Baker brought in the two runners and gave Cloudland the lead for the first time in the game, 3-2.
   "I was real happy with the way we hit the ball today," said Cloudland head coach, Jeff Bradley. "We made some mistakes in the field but we came back with the bats to cancel those errors out."
   Cloudland's lead was short-lived as Unaka drove in two runs with back-to-back doubles by Chambers and Cole giving Unaka back the lead, 4-2.
   The fight was not yet out of the Cloudland offense, though, as Mark Byrd scored off an error on the first baseman to tie the game 4-4 in the bottom of the fifth.
   In the bottom of the sixth, Cloudland's James Gardner scored on an error by the shortstop to recapture the lead. A single and a walk loaded the bases with just one out.
   Byrd, for the second time in as many innings, reached home on a wild pitch by Cole, giving Cloudland a two run lead going into the final inning.
   The seventh spelled disaster for Cloudland. Denton, who posted three strikeouts and an outstanding performance with his glove, had to be replaced by Byrd following three walks to load the bases with two outs.
   "I have never hammered an umpire since I have been coaching ball but that is the sorriest effort I've ever seen," said Bradley. "In the seventh inning, with two outs, and a zone that narrows down to nearly nothing, people like that don't need to be calling high school baseball. He didn't seem to have his head in the ball game. We won't play with him calling anymore."
   After a walk by Byrd and a passed ball, the score once again was tied, 6-6.
   David Perry, batting in the nine slot, drove a single into right field to pick up two RBIs and reclaim the lead for the Rangers.
   "I challenged the kids right there before the last inning and asked them if they were going to quit or battle. They said battle, and that's just what we did," said Ensor. "We battled, got a break here and a break there and our kids were patient at the plate. We knew the kid was high in his pitch count and we knew he was going to have trouble finding the plate."
   Cole finished out the game for Unaka with two fly balls and his eighth strikeout on the day, advancing them into the winner's bracket of the tournament.
   "All four teams are pretty equal," Bradley said. "You never know from one day to the next. We're not out of it, just a little disappointed. We'll lick our wounds and come back tomorrow. I don't want to take anything from Unaka. They're a great ball team and they've got great coaching and great athletes. I just felt like we outplayed them there and deserved to win."
   Cloudland will face North Greene at 4:30 p.m. in a game that will decide the first to be eliminated from the tournament.
   "[Cloudland] battled and played well. They're tough. They go after you and they have no quit in them at all," said Ensor.
   Unaka will face University High in a rematch of last Wednesday's game tonight at 7.